The Nakba Obsession....
The Palestinians have to come to terms with the fact that the descendents of refugees are not going to go back to their old homes...
Earlier this year, another pathbreaking work of historical scholarship appeared that, if facts mattered at all in this debate, would put the final nail in the coffin of the Nakba myth. The book is Palestine Betrayed, by Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East program at King’s College London. Karsh has delved deeper into the British and Israeli archives—and some Arab ones—than any previous historian of the period. He deftly uses this new material to seal the case that the Nakba was, to a large extent, brought on by the Palestinians’ own leaders.
For example, using detailed notes kept by key players in Haifa, Karsh provides a poignant description of an April 1948 meeting attended by Haifa’s Arab officials, officers of the nascent Israeli military, Mayor Shabtai Levy, and Major General Hugh Stockwell, the British military commander of Haifa. Levy, in tears, begged the Arab notables, some of whom were his personal friends, to tell their people to stay in their homes and promised that no harm would befall them. The Zionists desperately wanted the Arabs of Haifa to stay put in order to show that their new state would treat its minorities well. However, exactly as Stone reported in This Is Israel, the Arab leaders told Levy that they had been ordered out and even threatened by the Arab Higher Committee, chaired by the grand mufti from his exile in Cairo. Karsh quotes the hardly pro-Zionist Stockwell as telling the Arab leaders, “You have made a foolish decision.”
In describing the battle for Jaffa, the Arab city adjoining Tel Aviv, Karsh uses British military archives to show that the Israelis again promised the Arabs that they could stay if they laid down their arms. But the mufti’s orders again forbade it. In retrospect, it is clear that the mufti wanted the Arabs of Haifa and Jaffa to leave because he feared not that they would be in danger but that their remaining would provide greater legitimacy to the fledgling Jewish state.
Unfortunately, no amount of documentation and evidence about what really happened in 1948 will puncture the Nakba narrative. The tale of dispossession has been institutionalized now, an essential part of the Palestinians’ armament for what they see as the long struggle ahead. It has become the moral basis for their insistence on the refugees’ right to return to Israel, which in turn leads them to reject one reasonable two-state peace plan after another. In the meantime, the more radical Palestinians continue to insist that the only balm for the Nakba is the complete undoing of the historical crime of Zionism—either eliminating Israel or submerging it into a secular democratic state called Palestine. (The proposal is hard to take seriously from adherents of a religion and a culture that abjure secularism and allow little democracy.)
Nor will the facts about 1948 impress the European and American leftists who are part of the international Nakba coalition. The Nakba narrative of Zionism as a movement of white colonial oppressors victimizing innocent Palestinians is strengthened by radical modes of thought now dominant in the Western academy. Postmodernists and postcolonialists have adapted Henry Ford’s adage that “history is bunk” to their own political purposes. According to the radical professors, there is no factual or empirical history that we can trust—only competing “narratives.” For example, there is the dominant establishment narrative of American history, and then there is the counter-narrative, written by professors like the late Howard Zinn, which speaks for neglected and forgotten Americans. Just so, the Palestinian counter-narrative of the Nakba can now replace the old, discredited Zionist narrative, regardless of actual historical facts. And thanks to what the French writer Pascal Bruckner has called the Western intelligentsia’s new “tyranny of guilt”—a self-effacement that forbids critical inquiry into the historical narratives of those national movements granted the sanctified status of “oppressed”—the Nakba narrative cannot even be challenged.
This makes for a significant subculture in the West devoted to the delegitimization of Israel and the Zionist idea. To leftists, for whom Israel is now permanently on trial, Stone’s 1948 love song to Zionism has conveniently been disappeared, just as Trotsky was once disappeared by the Soviet Union and its Western supporters (of whom, let us not forget, Stone was one). Thus Tony Judt can write in The New York Review of Books—the same prestigious journal in which Stone began publishing his reconsiderations of Zionism—that Israel is, after all, just an “anachronism” and a historical blunder.
Several years ago, I briefly visited the largest refugee camp in the West Bank: Balata, inside the city of Nablus. Many of the camp’s approximately 20,000 residents are the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of the Arab citizens of Jaffa who fled their homes in early 1948.
For half a century, the United Nations has administered Balata as a quasi-apartheid welfare ghetto. The Palestinian Authority does not consider the residents of Balata citizens of Palestine; they do not vote on municipal issues, and they receive no PA funding for roads or sanitation. The refugee children—though after 60 years, calling young children “refugees” is absurd—go to separate schools run by UNRWA, the UN’s refugee-relief agency. The “refugees” are crammed into an area of approximately one square kilometer, and municipal officials prohibit them from building outside the camp’s official boundaries, making living conditions ever more cramped as the camp’s population grows. In a building called the Jaffa Cultural Center—financed by the UN, which means our tax dollars—Balata’s young people are undoubtedly nurtured on the myth that someday soon they will return in triumph to their ancestors’ homes by the Mediterranean Sea.
In Balata, history has come full circle. During the 1948 war, Palestinian leaders like Haj Amin al-Husseini insisted that the Arab citizens of Haifa and Jaffa had to leave, lest they help legitimize the Jewish state. Now, the descendants of those citizens are locked up in places like Balata and prohibited from resettling in the Palestinian-administered West Bank—again, lest they help legitimize the Jewish state, this time by removing the Palestinians’ chief complaint. Yet there is a certain perverse logic at work here. For if Israel and the Palestinians ever managed to hammer out the draft of a peace treaty, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, would have to go to Balata and explain to its residents that their leaders have been lying to them for 60 years and that they are not going back to Jaffa. Which, to state the obvious again, is one of the main reasons that there has been no peace treaty.